Derek Jeter’s contributions to the Yankees are often talked about in terms of what he brings with his "intangibles." But what the Yankees are missing right now from the shortstop position is very tangible.
Jeter's replacements have combined to hit .220 with one home run and a .606 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) through the first 40 games of the season while the Yankees captain continues to recover from a fractured left ankle. To put that in perspective, the MLB average OPS during that span is .722 and shortstops overall are hitting .256 with a .696 OPS. Jeter's OPS last season was .791.
Yankees shortstops rank 23rd in OPS and are 12th in the American League, leading only the Angels, Rays and Mariners.
Jeter, who turns 39 in June, has only twice posted an OPS below .718 during his first 40 games. In 2004 he was batting .194 with a .544 OPS, but rebounded to hit .329 with 20 home runs the rest of the way. Similarly, in 2011 he had a .257 average and .636 OPS, leading some to speculate that Jeter's skills may have faded beyond repair. But he proved the doubters wrong, hitting .315 with a .792 OPS during his final 91 games.
But instead of the Hall of Fame-bound Jeter trying to repair those numbers, it will be career backup Jayson Nix and underperforming Eduardo Nuñez (who’s on the disabled list himself currently).
Heading into Thursday, Nix and Nuñez received all but 10 at-bats Yankees shortstops have taken. The recently-acquired Alberto Gonzalez has nine and Robinson Cano got one.
Nix, who's also seen time filling in at third base, is batting .238 with one home run as a shortstop and .243 overall. He’s a career .216 hitter and is more likely to go south than proceed on a spring-summer tear.
By now we all know the Nuñez story: athletic but erratic fielder with a live bat rooted more in potential than production. Nuñez was a .272 career batter heading into 2013 with a .701 OPS. But he'd shown flashes of power and hit .292 in limited action during 2012. Though his fielding showed improvement this season, he's batting just .200 and has been beset by injuries.
Even Jeter's fielding -- the one knock against him by many in the stat-oriented community -- would be a welcome addition. Jeter has a career -6.4 UZR/150, an advanced metric that measures a fielder’s ability to get to balls hit in his zone. Yankees shortstops have posted a -16.4 UZR/150 in 358 innings this season. It's a small sample size, to be sure. But small or not, the defense at short is trending in the wrong direction.
The Yankees are counting down the days until Mr. November can take the field again. But right now, they’d settle for a shortstop to be Mr. May.